All the times top official Jenny Harries told Brits to chill about COVID-19

LONDON — Britain’s coronavirus inquiry is in full swing — and it’s not just the top political players squirming.

U.K. Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries — England’s deputy chief medical officer at the height of the pandemic — is slated to appear Tuesday afternoon and could face awkward questions of her own.

Harries burst into the public consciousness as the virus spread in 2020, with a host of utterances that were meant to reassure worried Brits — but ended up sowing more confusion.

POLITICO rounds up Harries’ most controversial comments — plus her Whitehall promotion at the end of it all.

Mass gatherings? Don’t sweat it!

Back in the hyper weird moments of early 2020, Harries took part in a 237760976482598913?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1237760976482598913%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=about%3Ablank" target="_blank" rel="noopener">video Q&A on coronavirus with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In the clip — posted March 11, 2020 when COVID-19 was already rapidly spreading — Harries told Johnson that big gatherings are “not seen to be something which is going to have a big effect.” She argued it was not worth disrupting people’s lives over the virus.

After lockdown-wary Johnson pointed out that other countries had been canceling big events and doing things “that are not necessarily dictated by the science,” the top medical official happily agreed that the U.K.’s plan was the right one.

But the interview was timed just after the four-day Cheltenham Festival kicked off and was interpreted as a big thumbs up for people to attend it and the raft of big Champions League football fixtures around that time. Around 150,000 people attended the big horse-racing event, which both a former chief science adviser and the Commons health committee later linked to furthering the spread of the virus. 

Masks? Who needs em’?

In her fireside chat with Johnson — and in other interviews — Harries also left the fence most other experts were sitting on when it came to face masks.

At the time, Brits were panic buying masks from high street pharmacists and the health service was grappling with a shortage of personal protective equipment. Experts at the time warned the science was inconclusive on whether they actually help or not.

But Harries went further, and told a nodding Johnson that “it’s usually quite a bad idea” to wear a mask if a healthcare professional hasn’t asked you to wear one. She also told the BBC masks could potentially “trap the virus.”

A few months later masks became mandatory in shops and on public transport. The government eventually recommended their use in schools too, despite Harries arguing “the evidence is not strong” for their use in classrooms. 

Close the schools? Nah

Early in the pandemic, Tory former Cabinet minister Rory Stewart urged Johnson’s government to follow the example of China and impose sweeping restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. “I would be, for example, shutting down all schools in London now,” he urged in March 2020.

Cue Harries, who was sent out on to the airwaves to curtly reject Stewart’s advice “on a scientific basis” and stress that the government had its own robust plan, thank you very much. Two weeks later, Britain entered a national lockdown, with the schools firmly shut.

(Don’t!) test, (don’t!) trace and (don’t!) isolate

Mass testing is “not an appropriate intervention” for Britain anymore, Harries explained on March 26, 2020 after the U.K. had moved away from an initial strategy of trying to test and trace those with symptoms.

This was despite the World Health Organization at the time urging countries to “test, test, test,” — something which Harries argued was more applicable to other “low and middle income” countries than it was to Britain.

A few weeks later and senior officials were admitting the U.K. got it wrong on COVID testing and had failed to increase it quickly enough, as they soon desperately tried to catch up with mass-testing countries like South Korea. Harries herself later blamed the U.K.’s poor testing capacity for the virus’ spread.

Promotions all round

Harries raised some Westminster eyebrows in 2021 when she was promoted to become the first ever chief executive of the brand new U.K. Health Security Agency — which contained the NHS Test and Trace system.

A key part of the agency’s brief is ensuring Britain is better prepared for the next pandemic. Harries was later made a “dame” in 2022 under the U.K.’s honors system.